Urban Ontarians learn the art of small-scale farming in Antigonish

Meghan Johnny says with increased severe weather and increased instability in the global supply chain, she feels a duty to be a farmer.

“The more I learn to grow food for myself and my community, the more equipped I am to continue caring for my community for the future,” she said.

Johnny is one of four young urban Ontarians learning the intricacies of organic farming through a mentorship program in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

The Marthas New Growers program was started by members of the Sisters of Martha in 2013 to provide participants with the skills necessary to run a small organic farm before purchasing their own farm.

Johnny is from Hamilton and his partner — whose family lives just outside of Antigonish — accounts for half of this year’s attendees. The couple moved to Nova Scotia in 2020.

Meghan Johnny inspects some crops from the small farm in Antigonish, Nova Scotia (David Matheson)

“Our goal has always been to start our own small vegetable farm and we are currently looking for land,” Johnny said. “But as many people know, it’s a pretty tough time to find land in the province,” she said.

Johnny said they will grow a variety of vegetables, ranging from lettuce and tomatoes to cucumbers and winter squash.

Describing crop choice as a “balancing act”, Johnny said people want to see a variety of things on their table, so they chose to grow less profitable crops like broccoli.

David Greenberg has mentored Marthas New Growers since its inception in 2013. (Hilary Rancourt)

David Greenberg of Abundant Acres Farm near Center Burlington, Nova Scotia, has been the program’s mentor since its inception nine years ago.

In 2012, he said he drove his wife to a meeting with the Sisters of Martha and mentioned to the sisters after the meeting that they should consider running a farm school on their land that could benefit the community.

A year later, Greenberg said he received a call from the sisters saying they had “reviewed his proposal” and decided to go ahead with the idea.

At first, Greenberg said he thought they called the wrong number, but then he remembered the conversation and realized he had “accidentally auditioned for the job.”

Niche program

Greenberg said it’s a niche program for a very specific type of person, so there aren’t many people who apply to participate each year.

“A very large part of the market gardeners I know have struggled at school [and] are smart, creative, empowered people who just want to be outside moving their bodies all day,” he said.

“It’s a pleasure to see people who have this kind of quirky, energetic, hyperactive, independent streak doing something life-giving every day for a living.”

Greenberg said the number of participants ranges from two to four per year.

Program cost

The 0.8 hectare farm has greenhouses, tools, a small walking tractor and cold rooms.

Participants keep the profits they generate from farming and must pay a fee of $4,000 or 50% of their profits, whichever is less.

Participant David Matheson examines some snapdragons grown on the farm. (Meghan Johnny)

Greenberg estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of graduates from the program are now farmers, many of whom own their own smallholdings.

He describes the program as a passion project for him — he lives about 200 kilometers from Antigonish — and urges anyone interested in enrolling for next year to contact him via the group’s Facebook page.

Antigonish Movement

The Marthas New Grower program is largely an extension of the Antigonish movement of which the Sisters of Martha were a part.

The movement, which dates back more than a century, has encouraged rural development in Nova Scotia through education, cooperation, and economically and socially just systems, Greenberg said.

Johnny said she is aware of the rich history of social movements in Antigonish.

“It highlights the fact that this type of thing doesn’t happen by accident,” Johnny said.

“It took a lot of hard work from dedicated people to build momentum to a point where this sort of thing can exist.”

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